“Every amateur thinks he’s invented something when he suggests we put him in a wheelchair,” Richardson says, shaking his head. “There is no such thing.”
He has specialized in orthopedics since joining the staff after serving his internship and residency here. At Ohio State University, he scrapped every plan he had for the future after he took a horse-riding class and felt the synch of beast and man while sitting in the saddle, and turned to veterinary sciences.
His wife also is a veterinarian. Their 21-year-old son wants to be a doctor — a people doctor, as was Richardson’s father.
The horse surgeon operates on other animals. He recently stitched up an injured gazelle for a private owner. He does consulting work for zoos on exotic animals such as lions and tigers; he also treats cows and sheep and goats.
Another reason the hospital has been so public about Barbaro’s convalescence, he said, is to show how far medicine has come in putting animals back together.
“We’re better at this than we were five years ago,” he said.
The improvements come from innovations as simple as building bigger operating tables to breakthroughs that have kept pace with human treatment — safer anesthesia, better antibiotics, sophisticated monitors to meticulously track the functions of major organs.
Those advances were not available to brilliant horses such as Ruffian, who broke her leg in two places in a 1975 match race at New York’s Belmont Park. She survived surgery, but thrashed so violently afterward, she shattered her cast and had to be euthanized. In 1990, the filly Go For Wand snapped her ankle at the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, collapsed and was put down in front of the grandstand.
In Barbaro’s case, one innovation that made a world of difference was a raft with legs, into which he was placed after surgery, while still sedated. The raft was lowered into a pool of 97-degree water. When the 3-year-old colt woke up, he couldn’t thrash or bolt.
“Horses have two responses — fight or flight,” Richardson said. “Their response is going to be to get up and run away. You can’t pat them on the back and say, ’Hey, calm down, Barbaro. You need some rest.”’
He watched the Preakness in Florida, on a six-inch hospital television. He had just come from surgery on a horse when he saw Barbaro break down.
Richardson picked up the phone and called his office, told them what equipment to get ready, and then booked himself on a flight out at 7 a.m. the next day.
He knew without asking that he would be the surgeon to repair Barbaro. He had worked before with trainer Michael Matz, who lives down the road, as do owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson. He also knew he didn’t have to rush back.
“Roy Jackson offered to send a chartered jet to pick me up,” he said. “I told him he didn’t have to.”
A suddenly lame horse needs time to figure out that something is wrong, so it doesn’t panic after surgery when confronted with being unable to stand normally, Richardson said. He operated the next day.
Jackson credits Richardson with saving his horse’s life.
“I just don’t know if any other doctor could have done the same thing,” Jackson said. “He’s done a lot of good things over the years. He just didn’t get this kind of recognition.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Leitch supervised his first internship. She was six years his senior. Even so, they argued so loudly and so vehemently that “the students went to the head of surgery and said we should be separated because we hated each other,” she said. The memory still amuses her. They still argue. “We shout. Neither of us is intimidated by a good argument.”
But the good doctor is a dear friend, she said.
“He always wonders if he’s made the right decision. He comes across as totally confident, but in fact I know that he worries a lot. He struggles. Anybody who doesn’t appreciate that about him doesn’t get it.”
The ruler of Dubai, stung by a doping scandal involving his horses in Britain, is making the use of steroids on race horses a criminal offense across the United Arab Emirates.
Horses in the Belmont Stakes on June 8 will face tighter security for the second straight year.